How Did The BBC Get It So Wrong For Blind Users In The Latest Update To Its iOS News App?

Member of the AppleVis Editorial Team

Update 2 February: Although not specifically mentioned in the release notes, it’s great to see that version 3.0.1 addresses many of the issues mentioned in the original post below. For example, the Share button is now accessible and you can add topics of interest to your custom feed (although you currently need to use a combination of the 3-finger swipe up/down and exploring by touch to access all available topics, as swiping is not reliable). So, although the accessibility of this app should still be regarded as somewhat of a work in progress, it’s clear that the developers are striving to resolve the issues that were present in version 3.0.

Original Post: The BBC has regularly earned praise on AppleVis for the accessibility of it’s iOS apps, and has previously been cited by us as a model of best practice that other organizations should be striving to match.

So, when news of a major update to its iOS News app was recently announced, I didn’t even consider the possibility that this might come with any significant accessibility issues. This is in marked contrast to when I see other major updates available for download from the App Store. Like I suspect many others do, I always approach these with a sense of concern … worried that the developers of a previously good and accessible app will have dropped the ball.

But, surely this couldn’t happen with a BBC app, could it?

After all, the BBC is known for its commitment to accessibility. It publishes Accessibility Standards and Guidelines which are intended to establish not only its own commitment and practice, but to provide a framework for others to follow; it provides guides on what accessibility is; it has developers who have actively engaged with the AppleVis community; and it has even mentioned AppleVis on national radio during a discussion of the accessibility of its mobile apps to blind and low vision users.

Knowing all of this, surely I could update to version 3.0 confident that my experience of the app would be everything that I had come to expect and appreciate in previous versions? This was a nailed on certainty, yes?

But, of course, you can all tell where this is heading. There’s no escaping the fact that the BBC has seriously dropped the ball in regard to ensuring that it’s most popular and high profile mobile app is accessible to VoiceOver users.

When opening the app for the first time, the presence of a few poorly labeled buttons was an early warning that things might not be of the standard that we have come to expect from the BBC. Those concerns were still quite muted, as it seems reasonable to expect just a few glitches to make it through to the public release of a major update. And, based upon what I had read in the past few days, this release was going to see a major overhaul of the interface and features of the app.

So, lets go and read a news story. All seems fine. But, hang on a minute, where’s the Share button? That’s such a staple of nearly every app these days, that it must be around here somewhere, right? After much swiping and exploring by touch, I finally had to admit defeat and ask somebody to check for me that there really was no Share button.

And, again you are likely to be ahead of me here. Of course there is a Share button, it’s right there on the top menu bar! Sadly, it seems that you are only going to know this if you are sighted and don’t rely on VoiceOver. If you do rely on VoiceOver to tell you what’s happening on the screen, it’s not going to tell you about that Share button or let you use it.

Whilst borrowing somebody else’s eyes, I also asked them if there was anything else which I might be missing as a VoiceOver user. They asked about the horizontal bar that appears at the top of the app’s main page - apparently you can scroll this left/right to get quick access to some of the main sections of the app. Well, you can if you aren’t using VoiceOver, as this is something else which that won’t tell you about.

At this point, I am a mixture of disappointed and mildly frustrated. There appear to be issues, but nothing that I could truly claim to be significant. Okay, so some might fairly point to that invisible Share button, but I can probably personally live without that for the time being.

So, lets go and explore one of the much heralded new features in this update, which is the ability to create a custom feed of articles based upon search and filter criteria that you supply.

Sounds great, yes?

Are you getting fed up yet with being ahead of me? Because, yes, of course, I’m about to find more accessibility issues. And, in this case, even I am going to struggle to claim them as being insignificant.

On going to my custom feed page, I am prompted to get started by adding some search or filter options. So, lets get swiping and adding. I quickly find a heading which seems to indicate that I can switch between two tabs - one to add new search and filter options, the second to managing existing ones. But, that seems to be all. So, lets get those working eyes back again to check if I am missing something. And, yes, of course, the page where you can add new criteria is indeed full of controls and elements, all of which are totally invisible to VoiceOver.

So, what’s the story here? Have the developers really never even tested this page - a very significant one in terms of this update - with VoiceOver? It’s certainly hard to imagine that they have, or that they have either sought or listened to feedback from blind users before releasing this update.

Whichever it is, it’s extremely disappointing. Quite frankly, we expect better from the BBC.

I will be sharing this disappointment with the BBC, and would strongly encourage others to do the same by mailing them at:

Here’s hoping that this will result in a resumption of normal service from the BBC when the next update hits the App Store.

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Submitted by Macky on Thursday, January 22, 2015

I couldn't agree more with this superbly written post. And unfortunately I did the exact same thing, updated without even thinking the BBC could have messed it up. Teething problems I can understand and live with but this is a huge step backwards. It was only a few weeks ago whilst discussing audio description via itunes on here I was praising the BBC for their efforts with AD on their iplayer app. So it's surprising and disappointing that they have taken their aye off the ball with this release. Thanks for the email address to contact them, I'll send them a message now and would encourage others to do the same.

Submitted by Mike Taylor on Thursday, January 22, 2015

I am sad to hear this. I was worried when I heard earlier this week about a new update to the app. Will be holding off updating until I hear of some improvements, or will just have to find a replacement. I hope this is a temp glitch and is resolved soon.

Submitted by Craig Werner on Sunday, February 8, 2015

David et al, when I check via iTunes, I am told the latest version is 2.0.14. Am I right in concluding that V. 3.0.1 is UK-specific?

Thank you.